Before my senior year of university, I spent a summer back home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, flipping burgers in a kitchen by day and waitressing at Applebees (think TJI Fridays) by night. One evening towards the end of the summer I went over to introduce myself to a couple who just been sat in my section. The woman, I was surprised to realise, was crying uncontrollably. Her husband flashed me a panicked look of ‘please help,’ and as we were supposed to stay at the table for at least two minutes (or whatever the god-awful rule was), I asked her, gently, what was wrong.

In between sobs, she explained that they had just dropped their son off at the university. She was worried sick he wouldn’t be able to cope, that he would miss home too much. That he wouldn’t be alone and sad and so far away.

My first reaction was to smile, but I held it in. Are you kidding? That first freshman week at UNC was renowned for being a non-stop series of parties. Confirmed, for me, when they said he was joining a fraternity. He would be having the time of his life, I said and she seemed somewhat comforted by this. ‘Do you really think he’s ok?’

I nodded and tried to tell them what a great town Chapel Hill is. How the students all rate it as an incredibly fun school. This was way before the time of Google.

I was so struck by her absolute breakdown in the middle of a restaurant, that this memory has stayed with me all my life, unlike most of my Applebees experiences I’ve been more than happy to forget (the birthday chants, cleaning ketchup bottles, monitoring people’s alcohol intake on the green, amber, red scale). I used to think it was a funny story, that this clueless woman had got it all so wrong, that she was worrying about her frat boy son, while he was probably shotgunning beers with his shirt off.

But as my 18-year-old twins prepare to go off for uni in a couple weeks, I’m starting to realise that I got it all wrong. What I’d witnessed was an outpouring of pure unadulterated grief. She was, of course, crying for herself. Fearing how she would be able to cope with his loss, thinking of how much she would miss him.

I get it now, because it’s happening to me, and I’m not sure I’d trust myself to get through a meal in a restaurant just after dropping either one of my kids off in a couple weeks.

Lately, I can’t stop missing my mum, who died in 2019. It’s been four years. Surely this grief thing should let up a bit? But something I saw on Netflix’s Painkiller the other night hit home: a bereaved parent saying that grief isn’t a process you go through, it’s something you carry with you, and learn to live with, for the rest of your life.

It helps me to picture my grief as a weight. Some days it feels particularly heavy, other days, it’s with me, but featherlight, no bother. And I guess this recent weighty resurgence has been triggered by the edges of a new kind of grief that I’m starting to feel – different, but made of the same stuff.

I keep being reminded of sorting through their clothes when they were small, how hard it was. I was so pleased and proud that they were growing, and so sad that they would never be that small again. Conflicted feelings that twisted in my gut, the emotions bittersweet – like French films do so well, or sad songs you can’t stop listening to. The older I get, the more I'm beginning to grasp just how much aging involves learning to live with loss. How life is a process of letting go and acceptance, words that are easy to say and so incredibly hard to carry out.  

Aging is hard. Change is hard. Our default setting is to hang on, to try to get things level and stay there. To figure out exactly who we are. But each one of us is a moving target. Life is in constant flux. Nothing ever stays the same. This too shall pass are words you can meditate on for a lifetime.

I am excited for Eliza and Hector to be moving on, and so proud of all that they have achieved so far, and how resilient they have had to be. They are both following creative paths, Eliza – her writing, and Hector – his music. And of course, I am beyond sad that we are nearing the end of an era, but the tears are all for me. I am having to let go.


 Hector and Eliza now Hector and Eliza walking away when they were young


Sarah Day